By now, most of us have heard that having healthy boundaries is important in any relationship. But how do we know when we’re putting up boundaries rather than building walls? When we first begin to practice boundaries, it can seem difficult to spot the difference.
Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Boundaries: When to Say Yes and When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, defines boundaries as a property line that tells you who is in control (that’s you!), that you have freedom to make choices, and that you are responsible for what you choose to tolerate. When you haven’t had good boundaries, it takes practice to incorporate them into your life. Once you realize that boundaries are a necessary part of a healthy relationship, then the question becomes this: Are you actually practicing boundaries or are you just building walls to keep people out?
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:
Olivia and Ryan are married and are both full-time workers outside of the home. While they share many interests, Olivia begins to feel like all of her free time outside of work involves couples’ activities. While she loves her husband, she notices that she rarely pursues outside interests or meets up with her own friends for a night out on her own. Olivia tells Ryan that she would like to start going out with her girlfriends once a month and having time each week to herself to pursue some of her own interests as a part of her self-care.
This is a boundary, not a wall.
Olivia doesn’t want to stop spending time with her husband. She just wants some occasional time to be alone or to see friends without everything being a couples’ activity. She recognizes her own need for space, realizes that she is responsible for communicating how she feels, and speaks up to tell him what she needs.
Mark and Delia are in a committed relationship. They have both experienced heartache in the past and are learning to navigate a healthy relationship together. Delia openly expresses her feelings to Mark and shares her goals for their future. Mark is less open about his intentions and future goals and only occasionally will share his struggles with Delia.
Is Mark keeping his thoughts private and putting up a boundary? No, he’s not. The lack of willingness to practice vulnerability shows that Mark is putting up walls rather than enforcing a personal boundary. While he’s under no obligation to share every thought and feeling with his partner, his unwillingness to address their future or to open up about how he feels indicates that he might have self-protective measures in place that act as a wall between him and Delia.
That is the key difference between boundaries and walls.
With boundaries, there are clear markers of what will and won’t be accepted. Rather than keeping everyone out, boundaries allow us to include the right people in our circle of closeness while keeping mere acquaintances and others at a more appropriate level of intimacy. Olivia opened up to Ryan about her needs in the first example while Mark refused to share his thoughts or feelings with Delia in the second example.
Boundaries allow us to be vulnerable when vulnerability is required in relationships. They also allow us to state what behaviors will and won’t be tolerated. But more than that, they allow for a healthy level of closeness–one that doesn’t take away from our individuality but enriches our experiences as couples.
But building walls only keeps other people out. When we build walls, we don’t open up about what we want or what we’re thinking. We’re afraid to let our guards down and be seen as we are lest we get hurt again. Walls are a defense mechanism while boundaries are a part of a healthy relationship.
When we recognize that difference, we can begin to put up property lines in our lives without building walls that prevent us from the full experience of loving and being loved in return — while still remaining true to our faith.
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